Yet more reports are validating that, since the recent ouster of State Security Minister Kim Won-hong for “human rights violations” and other reasons, something has changed (at least for now) in the way North Korea’s internal security forces are operating:
Following orders from Kim Jong Un for the Ministry of State Security (MSS) to refrain from violating human rights, its personnel have begun to shy away from their characteristic extortionist behavior during their interactions with residents. This appears to be an attempt to balance their effectiveness in garnering bribes from residents while avoiding punishment from above.
A source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 14 that MSS officials have eased up on heavy-handed behavior, most noticeably amongst those with regional areas under their jurisdiction.
A source in North Hamgyong Province added, “Even until early this year, security agents used to threaten people unless they paid bribes, but these incidents have recently been in decline. The change seems to have been influenced by Kim Jong Un’s instructions, but it is unclear how long will it continue.” [Daily NK]
The reports suggest several interesting things. First, MSS officers aren’t being paid enough to support themselves without shaking down citizens. That means the pursuit and blocking of the revenue that supports the MSS can further damage North Korea’s internal control and further strain relations between the state and its subjects.
Second, the state is more afraid of the people than many of us had assumed. Why else would it order the MSS to stop shaking citizens down? Now, citizens who are used to being extorted are “surprised to see MSS officials pleading with them for money instead of threatening them like they used to.” The Daily NK‘s sources don’t think this change will last, but it’s still significant that they think this:
“Recent measures against the MSS, including the purge of Kim Won Hong and the execution of high-ranking officials, are just political posturing to appease the residents. The MSS is likely to have its power restored soon and the agents will return to their old ways again,” he said.
That validates my first theory of Kim Won-hong as scapegoat, a la Yezhov. Another theory, sourced to a think tank run by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, is that Kim was done in by his rivalry with Choe Ryong-hae, who sabotaged him to get revenge for his own punishment by being sent to the fields for a few months.
I’m convinced that we’ve underestimated the power of talking to the North Korean people about human rights. No wonder the regime is so furious when we do it. We underestimate the regime’s fear of its poorest classes. We also underestimate the connection between money and internal control in North Korea. The right strategy isn’t to talk about human rights or target the regime with sanctions. It’s both strategies pursued in coordination. These surprising reports give us small hope that we can present Pyongyang’s intrigue-riven elites with a stark choice: to change, or to perish.
Our most urgent diplomatic priority this year will be to prevent Moon Jae-in from relieving Pyongyang of that choice, using any leverage at our disposal.